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Game On: Why ‘Minecraft’ continues to attract new players

UPDATED: Thu., June 10, 2021

Caves & Cliffs, Part I, the 17th major update to “Minecraft” across nine years, was released on Tuesday, adding a variety of new wildlife, building blocks and items to craft. Part II is planned for the holiday season.  (Mojang Studios)
Caves & Cliffs, Part I, the 17th major update to “Minecraft” across nine years, was released on Tuesday, adding a variety of new wildlife, building blocks and items to craft. Part II is planned for the holiday season. (Mojang Studios)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

When I first heard about “Minecraft” in 2009, it was still in its alpha development phase with just under 1 million registered players. The concept of a procedurally generated world where you could build, craft, scavenge and reshape the environment however you pleased intrigued me, so I hopped on and enjoyed it greatly despite it being a fairly barebones experience.

With only one developer, at the time there were just four types of monsters, two tree species and less than a dozen biomes to explore. Fast forward to today, and not only has “Minecraft” become an exponentially bigger and more complex game, but it’s enjoyed being in the limelight as a sort of cultural sensation for several years now.

While I was instantly hooked on the early builds of the game, I had the feeling it would remain an underground hit – its blocky appearance and pixelated textures didn’t appeal to the graphical elitists of the time, and the way “Minecraft” dumped players directly into a foraging and survival scenario with no instructions struck me as something with niche appeal.

Boy, did I call that one wrong. Despite zero advertising, the game amassed legions of players seemingly overnight through word of mouth alone – just prior to the full release of “Minecraft” in November 2011, the beta surpassed 16 million registered players and 4 million purchases. In 2014, the “Minecraft” IP and its studio Mojang were purchased by Microsoft for $2.5 billion.

Now, you can scarcely walk through a department store without seeing “Minecraft”-themed clothes or toys. Not only did “Minecraft” sell like hotcakes upon release, but it also has an uncanny way of keeping players invested. I have numerous friends who admit to putting down the game for months before binging it for several weeks, rinse and repeat.

As of March, the game has 140 million monthly active players worldwide, according to Statista. There simply isn’t another video game in existence boasting that kind of player retention. Part of what keeps people invested is Mojang’s refusal to divide the player base.

In recent years, it’s trendier for “games as a service” such as “Fortnite” or “Apex Legends” to keep everyone together, but in the early days of “Minecraft,” it was extremely common for games to release paid updates – even the likes of massively successful franchises like “Halo” and “Call of Duty” were guilty of the practice.

Pragmatically speaking, it was a good way to support the developers’ continuing efforts, but it also resulted in some players having access to the new stuff while others were left behind. In some cases, players with the base game couldn’t even play together with gamers with the new downloadable content.

This method of releasing updates has proven to be a penny wise and dollar short. The developer might enjoy more immediate revenue with paid updates, but repeatedly fragmenting your player base will inevitably cause it to fizzle out.

The studio worked hard to homogenize the game, making it identical on all platforms – the end result is that PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo gamers can all play “Minecraft” together online in real time. Such a concept was almost unthinkable just five years ago.

Bug fixes happen every month, but content updates are released only once or twice a year. In doing this, Mojang guarantees that new content meshes well within the game’s existing framework rather than feeling tacked on.

Part 1 of the Caves & Cliffs update was released on Tuesday, adding a spyglass, goats, axolotls, glow squids, amethyst geodes, stalagmites, copper ore and a variety of new building blocks. The slow and steady stream of updates also ensures that new players don’t feel perpetually overwhelmed as they learn the ropes.

Even though the crafting ecosystem is quite deep, the game mechanics feel consistent, logical and easy to memorize for entry-level gamers. Even my dad has played it a couple of times, and it’s difficult to get him to try anything newer than “Missile Command.”

“Minecraft” has just enough fundamental goals – scavenge for food, craft better and better gear and take on nastier monsters with ever-increasing confidence – that its otherwise open-ended nature is not to the game’s detriment.

Most people are creative enough to fill in the blanks – you can build automated farms, go mining for diamonds, protect villagers from raiders, construct massive towers or go slay the mighty Enderdragon. And that’s just scratching the surface of possibilities.

“Minecraft” keeps expanding with new features, but Mojang has never altered the core gameplay. Over the years, I’ve become instilled with a sense that “Minecraft” will always be there for me, perhaps freshened up with new content but never derailed by it. I know if I put the game down for months at a time that I will derive the same amount of joy from it when I return.

With its randomly generated worlds, it instills a sense of adventure and discovery while still being familiar and inviting. It is this perfect dichotomy that has kept gamers invested in “Minecraft” for more than a decade now, and it will continue to do so for years to come.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com.

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